IN THE REPUBLIC OF HAPPINESS
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court
Could this be Christmas yet to come? Six family members sit round the festive board, grimly sporting paper hats. Wine flows, but gloom descends before they decide to break open the box of light bulbs and screw them in. Silence, significantly, at first, then some brutal home truths. Though we suspect that not all is true, spite and dementia distorting what few facts emerge.
The wallpaper might suggest something more, or less, than realism, and when the first visitor [the mysterious Uncle Bob, Paul Ready] materialises from the wings, we know we have left Ayckbourn behind. "I thought I would just suddenly appear, so I did. I suddenly appeared."
Beaming with bonhomie, he has a message of hate and loathing from his other half, Michelle Terry's superbly played, charmingly cruel Madeleine. There are long riffs on relationships, often wittily done, Anna Calder Marshall's virtuoso taxi speech just one example. Long and difficult to remember, like Uncle Bob's second-hand vitriol. When Madeleine slips in from stage left, she too is sweetness and light to start with …
They are on the way to the airport, this message is to be delivered before they leave for ever, for a new life which will be like a pane of glass – "Hard. Sharp. Clear. Clean." In an unsettling epilogue, we see the two of them in a light box, presumably the Republic of the title, as bright as the house was gloomy, as Bob struggles to remember who he is and why he is there. To deliver another message, it seems, to "our citizens", prompted by the manipulative Madeleine.
In song, since this is a musical play. The end of the first part [back in the Christmas house] is marked by a kiss, the first song, and a complete change. The wallpaper, and the walls, disappear, the actors lose the details [scarf, glasses] which define their character, and sit in comfortable chairs in what could be a television studio, delivering to the audience the Five Essential Freedoms of the Individual, the central part of the play, though not conventionally dramatic. As in Crimp's earlier work, in the text none of the speeches is allocated to a particular actor. Some of the key words and ideas from part one are developed in themes and variations. Poetically, repetition and distortion help the eight voices explore their thoughts. There are lots more songs. Computer idioms are a feature. Plus, an annoying use of "plus" as a punctuating conjunction. The mood is sometimes angry [though suppressed in ironic "reasonable" acquiescence], as in "It's Nothing Political", sometimes tearful - "The Freedom to Experience Horrid Trauma". Psycho-jargon bubbles up in the later Freedoms especially. Where once we suffered in silence, we now express every innermost thought and feeling.
Pretentious ? It certainly sometimes has the feel of drama school work about it, and a heavy hint of the Absurd. But the experience – almost two hours without a break – was enlivened by the inventive use of language and structure, the provocative 'confessions' [murmurs of disgust from the stalls], and by the quality of the performances, and Dominic Cooke's assured direction.
Calder-Marshall gets plenty of laughs from Granny, helped by immaculate timing, and there are strong performances from Ellie Kendrick as a punkish teenager, Stuart McQuarrie as Dad, Emma Fielding as Mum and Peter Wight as Grandad, with his unreliable memory and his broken dreams – "the moon was too far - he couldn't be bothered".
production photograph by Johan Persson
this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews